Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses first met in Introduction to Sketch class at the Ballister Art Institute, a school populated mostly by the wealthy. Mel and Sharon, with their rural poor origins, were out of place until they found each other and quickly became friends and collaborators. Their collaboration extended past college when their partnership turned into a career in animation. Their oddball, often highly personal cartoons garnered them a cult following in the animation world, and their film based on Mel’s life, Nashville Combat, grew their reputation.
At first, Mel appears to be the star of the partnership. Their big movie was made from her life, after all. And she has the whole troubled artist thing down, drinking, doing drugs, and even causing a scene during an important panel. Sharon is the stable one who keeps the work on course. At least that’s how it seems.
Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel depicts a complex friendship, colored by love and jealousy and sometimes even fear. And all of this is layered with ideas about art and who gets to tell certain stories.
As friends and collaborators, Mel and Sharon have created their own world together, where they set the schedule and make the rules. They do what they need to do for their art. But there’s a dark side to it. Mel doesn’t tell her mother, who is in prison and figures heavily in Nashville Combat about the movie, and when her mother suddenly dies, she never gets to find out whether her mother knew about it or what she might think.
Mel’s mom’s death is only one way that life intervenes to break down Mel and Sharon’s world. Sharon, the steadying force, has a major health crisis that nearly kills her and makes drawing such a struggle it’s not clear she can return to work. The crisis brings back some dark memories, and Mel encourages Sharon to use that to bring back her art. This puts both of them on a journey Sharon doesn’t want to take.
One of the joys of this book is how the story turns and turns again. I thought it was going to be an odd couple sort of tale because despite their shared origins in poverty and cartooning talent, Mel and Sharon are set up as opposites, right down to their appearance. Sharon is buxom and brunette and wears cocktail dresses to events while Mel is tall and blonde and prefers suits. Sharon is straight, and Mel is a lesbian. Sharon stays on the outside, and Mel seeks the spotlight. But the story is so much more interesting than a story of contrasts. Yes, these two women are different from each other, but what’s important is that they’re committed to each other, even when it aches. This is a book that takes friendship seriously.
The book also takes art seriously and raises hard questions about the implications of making art, especially when it is inspired by life. Mel has no compunctions in this area, but Sharon is more cautious. But it is by making art, even dangerous and painful art, that Sharon is able to get free of some darker aspects of her past. Still, there are problems with how that art touches others.
I have some small quibbles about aspects of the book, but mostly I loved it. Reading it really made me long for more good contemporary books about people from rural areas. (I would be more comfortable with certain rural tropes, including some in this book, if I could be confident that readers saw plenty of rural stories that didn’t include those elements.) Mostly, though, I want serious, complex books about friendship. This was an excellent example of the kind of story I’d like to see more of. I will warn you, though; the last 50 pages or so had me sobbing. But I like sobbing books, too.